Fiercely unsentimental, fascinated by the grotesque, scathingly funny--it's no wonder that Joy Williams has so often been compared to Flannery O'Connor. Though Williams's novel State of Grace was nominated for a National Book Award in 1974, her reputation, like O'Connor's, rests largely on her short stories. Both of her collections, Taking Care and Escapes, carefully deploy off-kilter elements--a rusted-out Thunderbird sitting in a living room, a girl's escape with a boa constrictor--to striking emotional effect. It's no surprise then that The Quick and the Dead (Knopf), Williams's first work of fiction in a decade, employs a deluge of bizarre personalities--among them a scheming ghost, a stroke-contorted salesman, a morbid piano player, a declining aesthete, and a sermonizing vegetarian.
Williams delights in setting this cast loose in the Southwestern desert, where the baking sun seems to exert some brain-addling effect. Yet her deeper intention is to explore the contentious relations between the living and the defunct while purposefully blurring the lines between them. The novel's two most compelling settings exist in a kind of rank no man's land: a wildlife-cum-taxidermy museum where desiccated carcasses appear lively; and a nursing home where pacemakers keep residents ticking away long after reason's departure. Elsewhere in the novel, the quick do little more than bide their time before the End. In this world, existence is either piddled away on inconsequentia or endured in sorrow and boredom. Death, when it's granted, comes brutish and cruel.
The principal character in this joyless world is 15-year-old Alice. Abandoned by her parents to the care of her Granny and Poppa, Alice is the kind of uncompromising teenager who believes that six-year-olds "were not too young to be informed about the evils of farm subsidies, monoculture, and overproduction....They should know, if only vaguely at first, about slaughterhouses." Needless to say, Alice's musings can make for hilarious reading, and her off-center perspective lends a purposefully uncomfortable edge to scenes with the highest wet-hankie potential.
Because of Alice's vegetarianism and her adamant support of animal rights, many readers may be tempted to see her as a mouthpiece for Williams's own views. Just three years ago in Harper's, the author published an impassioned defense of the animal-rights movement's most radical faction. But Williams does not intend us to read Alice as a model activist. At one point in the novel, she buys a wrist-lock slingshot so she can brain the neighborhood cat, which has provoked her ire by killing a series of birds. Empathy, it's made clear, is not Alice's strong point.
If anywhere, Williams's sympathies seem to lie with Alice's best friend, Corvus. Recently orphaned (her parents drowned in a freak car accident), Corvus struggles briefly to move beyond the "terrific pain and uncertainty" of mourning, but she quickly gives in to sorrow, spending her days volunteering at the Green Palms nursing home, where the residents' shattered state parallels her own.
Despite its cast of indelibly quirky misfits, The Quick and the Dead moves as slowly as a hospital morphine drip. Stick-on neck moles, death by splintered mirrors, insipid French beauticians--by the end of the book, they feel as familiar, and as unfunny as a tired joke. It doesn't help that the plot's momentum often stalls as Williams, aiming to create a grand panorama, veers off into the predicaments of tertiary characters. One feels that, in her drive to resist the platitudes of "the confirm-and-comfort path" and in her relentless grotesques, the author shies away from the heart of her material: How does an intelligent person properly conduct her life in this absurd, violent world?
Near the end of the book, a young huckster enjoins Alice to buy a candle for a vigil to protect some endangered aquifer. "Lighting a candle," he says, "confers the kind of fulfillment that only empty ritual can bring. Empty ritual's important...It's the keystone for tomorrow's dealings in an annexed and exploited world." Repulsed, Alice refuses to participate and walks alone into the languorous night. If there's a path between his empty posturing and her righteous solitude, Williams isn't showing the way.